Monday, September 4, 2006

The Value of Political Populism in the coming realignment

Stirling Newberry has entered a on-going debate about populism and the place of bipartisanship and technocracy in American politics.

When I read Stirling Newberry’s excellent posts, I often think on the possibilities for political realignment, and that’s what I have been doing today.

Realignments occur when a shift in the locus of power coincides with events, which imprint a lot of people with a political party identity, which, in turn, tends to stabilize the pattern of partisan divide. In other words, realignments are one of the consequences of a political storm, big enough to cause people to change their minds about their political identities, as well as shift the customary locus of policymaking.

So there are two issues at stake, here: the locus of power and political identity (i.e. whether a person thinks of himself as Republican or a Democrat or an unidentified independent).

Bipartisanship has been the locus of power in American politics since the New Deal; the bipartisanship of FDR’s day has morphed and decayed and been revived many times, but, mostly, bipartisan compromise has been how policy has been made – that’s what I mean by identifying bipartisanship as the locus of power -- it’s the place where policy is made. As Stirling has pointed out, bipartisanship has decayed to the point, where it is useless and destructive, which I take it to be a general lesson many politically aware Democrats have taken away from the spectacle of Joe Lieberman's dance with the devil.

The locus of power has shifted, under Bush and his Tom DeLay Congress, into the hands of extremists, corrupt corporatists and manipulators entirely within the Republican Party. Bipartisanship is just a stage show, now, used by the Republicans to legitimate their destructive and foolish policies to old people, who remember bipartisanship as something else. The moderates in the Republican Party – the people, who benefited the most from FDR’s bipartisanship, by FDR’s design – are now a nearly extinct handful, excluded from power with the same ruthless disregard as Democrats.

The technocrats were key to FDR’s bipartisanship, because FDR designed it that way. The whole point of FDR’s bipartisanship was to exclude from national power, the crazies in both Parties, and to make government policy rational and effective: to build a sustainable national economy and win a World War.

Brad DeLong, a self-identified technocrat, is mourning the loss of power for technocrats. The tradition of an elaborate “policy process”, as instituted by FDR and elaborated through the 1980’s by both Presidents of either party and Congress and the Federal bureaucracy, is completely gone from the White House, moribund or eroding in much of the Federal bureaucracy, and completely absent in the proceedings of Congress. Those with Power, in this Administration and Congress, are building a quite different apparatus, and, really, have no use for genuine technocrats, except for show, since they are really not concerned for the consequences of policy, as a technocrat or rational and deliberate person conceives of consequences.

If an authoritarian and inflexible abortion policy, to take a single concrete example, has cruel consequences for women and children, that really is of no concern, whatsoever, to the Republican Powers-that-Be. Their only concern is about the electoral consequences, and will use their control of all the tools of Propaganda – i.e. all Media – to suppress any debate over policy, which brings rational attention to consequences.

My hope for a realignment is for a shift of the locus of political power into the Democratic Party, where it might rest in artful, progressive, pragmatic compromises between reality-based moderates and liberals, who are concerned about the consequences of policy. I hope that Democrats might be able to sell the idea that they can be trusted with the locus of power, in part on the basis of a prolonged experience of policy failure under Bush. I think compromise within the Democratic Party could satisfy a substantial majority of Americans, who are not radicals or insane, and who do care about consequences, when they are made to think about them for more than 30 seconds at a time. John Kerry, a Roman Catholic, whose opposition to the death penalty and history of antiwar activity are consonant with a genuine “pro-life” position in a way Bush’s record is not, is the kind of Democrat, I think, who can be trusted to participate WITH other Democrats in fashioning policies on abortion, birth control, sex education and family planning, which might actually have the consequence of reducing the number of abortions in the United States, without compromising the fundamental autonomy of the individual, represented by recognition of a constitutional right to privacy.

(I am not advocating Kerry's candidacy in 2008; any number of Democrats are equally credible and inclined toward progressive policy compromises.)

Political realignment is also about political identity, the tendency of people in a two-party system to identify with one Party or the other. Political identities are psychologically deep and persistent. People, who experience trauma, even as children, often struggle years later with neurotic emotional patterns, because in those moments of high arousal, whatever theories they form about the world and who they are and what will make them safe, are imprinted on the amygdala, the relatively "primitive" cognitive/emotional center of the brain, and those patterns can be changed, if at all, only with great therapeutic difficulty.

Political identity is formed similarly to neurosis ;-) People often adopt a political identity in moments of great political tumult and conflict, when they are aroused by the political controversies of the day. Lots of people in the younger generation will inherit their parent's identification, but won't feel strongly until such a moment of political tumult, occurs, while older people persist in their political identity, formed years earlier, no matter how the issues of day may have changed.

In 1860-64, the trauma of the Civil War imprinted people with political identities so strongly, that they persisted thru generations well into the 1930’s, and again in the political trauma of the Great Depression and World War II, political identities were strongly imprinted on a whole generation.

The political identities of a great many people over 50, today, were formed in the 1960's and early 1970's, amid the reaction to Civil Rights, Vietnam and Watergate. If you listened to the Samuel Alito hearings, you know that he talked explicitly about how his political leanings were formed in his reactionary perceptions of 60's "campus anarchy"; the American Prospect had an interview recently with Senator Charles Schumer, where he talks with digust about the Democratic Left, whose antics, combined with Nixonian rhetoric, of course, drove so many middle class and working class families – his political base, not incidentally – into the Republican Party. The Democratic Party was permanently damaged by the reaction to race riots and Vietnam and sexual liberation, and the manipulation of that reaction by Republicans. Moderates and conservatives in the Democratic Party were alienated from the liberal and progressive Left; some eventually left for the Republican Party, becoming Reagan Democrats, and the rest found themselves more comfortable negotiating power with Republicans than their fellow Democrats. Bipartisanship, in decay, became a way to isolate the most liberal Democrats from power, and a way for Republicans to subvert the Democratic center-right.

The great bulwark of Republican political identity, today, among people in their 40's, formed during the painful stagflation and malaise of Carter, followed by Reagan's Morning in America (excuse me while I gag). People whose political awareness dawned during Carter's term and Reagan's first term are the last cohort with a firmly imprinted political identity, and it is biased in the Republican's favor.

Everyone under 35 tends to wear their political identity, whatever it is, pretty lightly; they tend to have a lower awareness of political controversy than even their parents and grandparents, never having had the experience of really intense political controversy, felt personally. The prolonged trauma of Bush's Presidency, turning the shock of 9/11 into prolonged anxiety about terrorism and the economy has the potential to significantly alter political identity. The decay of bipartisanship, similarly, has already resulted in a shift of the locus of power, as I wrote above, into the hands of the “insane” – that is, people, who are unconcerned about the consequences of policy.

So, we have the coincidence of two conditions for political realignment: a locus of power, which results in policy with bad consequences, which increases political anxiety and arousal among lots of people, and a large number of people, who have never before had much political consciousness or experienced the kind of political tumult, which would imprint them with a fixed political identity.

Decent, responsible people, with a high degree of political awareness are actively working to get the locus of power and policy-making out of the hands of the cynical and insane – that pressure is reflected in a small trickle of reality-based Republicans and previously weakly identified Independents out of the ranks of either the unidentified independents or the Republican Party and into the Democratic Party, a trickle of leadership, which may, eventually result in an erosion of the Republican-identified electorate, as well as a better image for the Democrats and a Democratic Party better able to make policy within its own ranks.

The addition of blogstars like Kos and Atrios, as well as politicians like Lamont, Webb, and Tester is improving the quality of leadership available to the Democratic moderate center. The Democratic moderate center of the Clinton days -- dominated by the DLC and the New Democrats -- has been corrupted and eroded in their "bipartisan" truck with the Republicans, but they are being replaced by far more vigorous pundits and politicians, who are far less reflexively hostile to liberalism and the Democratic Left.

The Democratic Party is being transformed in its leadership in a way that promises the possibility of effective policy-making within the Party. The Party is far more ideologically "pure" and coherent than at any time since Andrew Jackson founded the organization. That's hopeful.

A realignment is almost certain, but the nature of that realignment is not.

The credibility of the Democratic Party as an alternative to the Republicans or as a trustworthy home, for the locus of power and decision-making is pretty low. The Democrats, themselves, have been in a pattern of powerlessness for a long-time. The old Democratic center – white male southerners and northern pro-labor conservatives – is rapidly fading and appears terminally corrupt. Moreover, the political identity of such people has as an inherent component a strong hostility to various components of the Democratic Left, including the capital “L” liberals. Really, that hostility is to the ghosts of the anti-war Left of the 1960’s and 1970’s, which exist today only in the political amygdala, but it is a very real part of the political dynamic. The old center of the Democratic Party could not possibly cooperate with the old Left, without sparks flying. The Democrats struggle to assemble a message, and do so, often, with a remarkable absence of professionalism. (The “professional” Democrats – the lobbyists and political consultants, who do the work of “crafting message” – are mostly of the old Democratic center-right and are themselves seriously corrupt. See MyDD and DailyKos for documentation.)

Whether a Democratic “populism” is part of the solution, I have my doubts. Populism is more a political tactic and pose than an actual philosophy, which is why, I suppose, it is often subject to manipulation or corruption. It is characterized by the targeting of people’s resentments and feelings of being oppressed, more than their ideals. It is a pose, which says, “I” the politician or pundit can be trusted, because “I, populist” am one of you, and will fight for you, the People, and make choices with the same values and ideas you have. It celebrates the wisdom of the Common Man for the pleasure of ordinary people, who feel their ordinariness, and resent their ordinariness.

Nominating a war hero, like John Kerry, is a politics of admiration; swift-boating the same the politics of resentment. It is a sad reality that people can not be counted on to vote for people they have genuine cause to admire, for whatever qualities the candidate for leadership and authority may possess, including good judgment. Everyone would like to believe that they are above average in intelligence and whatever moral qualities a person may be supposed capable of possessing, whether those moral qualities be as superficial as good luck or conformity with social expectations and standards of respectability, or something different.

Liberal Democrats of the upper middle class often wonder why some among the lower middle class choose to vote “against their own interests” and with the Republicans; of course, Republicans of the lower classes can easily be manipulated to resent the implicit claim of “moral superiority” by wealthy Democrats, who seem to vote against their own class and material interests. Such resentment is skillfully exploited by such populist Republican figures as O’Reilly and Limbaugh, as well as Republican politicians.

Republican populism, of course, is fundamentally irrational, as any politics based on the manipulation of resentment is naturally inclined to be. Resentment is the irrational mirror-image of logical admiration; resentment prefers a fake, and Republicans have skillfully used resentment to promote the studied mediocrity of Nixon, the movie actor emptiness of Reagan, and – I can’t think of appropriate adjectives – George W. Bush. The only Republican Presidents they haven’t been able to re-elect in the last 40 years was the genuinely smart and courageous, although lazy, aristocrat, Bush 41. (I don’t count Ford, who was never elected.)

Populism is not such an easy pose for a Democrat, though Clinton seemed to do it well enough, he seemed to be constitutionally unable to fight back effectively against the endless Media slander of Whitewater, or to avoid undermining his own Party electorally. And, populism can get in the way of the central project of restoring the locus of power to a place, where policy is made, with due consideration of its consequences.

Historically, Democrats did better with wealthy Aristocrats, like FDR and Kennedy, who could claim a measure of deference, and clothe their technocratic aides – their brain trusts and whiz kids and best and the brightest – with a patina of romance.

To me, two great obstacles loom before a successful realignment of American politics in favor of rational and progressive policy and leadership.

The first is corporate control of all Media. The Media – and I literally mean, all Media, including such institutions as the New York Times, as well as the television networks and cable news channels and radio networks – function as a propaganda organ of the incipient fascist state, which Bush has been relentlessly building.

Bush’s policy failures have made a lot of people unhappy, but most of those people do not have deep, philosophical views on what about politics is making them so unhappy. For a very large percentage, it is simply the price of gas or a vague anxiety about health care or job opportunities, and they don’t even understand how politics relates to their unhappiness.

I suppose if some Democrats adopted some version of populism, which connected their unhappiness to politics in some half-way coherent fashion, there might be some chance of imprinting them with a Democratic identity. It is certainly true that having Glenn Greenwald preach about civil liberties and the rule of law – and I sincerely mean no disrespect to Glenn, whom I, personally, admire – is not going to convert many, who are not already converted. Nor, I fear, will even a shrill Brad DeLong, whose own ideological commitments to free trade and liberal immigration are going to undermine his credibility with people, whose current, political trauma is the reality or prospect of losing their well-paid jobs in manufacturing.

But, even if some Democrats adopted a well-meaning populism to convince middle class folk, who are hurting and scared, that the Democratic Party can do some good, good that the Republican Party is manifestly unwilling to do, there is still the problem of how you reach them and tell them.

I am convinced that even on Republican hot-button issues, like, say, gay marriage, Democrats can win most people, even the conservatively inclined, over to a rational compromise policy, like civil unions, if they can get 5 minutes to focus people on considering the consequences. When even the Republican fire-brands are asked about the consequences of policy on something like gay marriage, they are typically speechless. They’ve never thought about the consequences, never considered them seriously. It is all just symbolism; their empathy for people defined as unlike themselves has been shut down.

The same is true of abortion. For the Republicans, the issue is one of symbolic values and the purely visceral associations those values have. For a Republican voter, parental notification is about the relation a child “should” have with her parent, not about the consequences of the proposed policy for real, less than ideal people. But, if even a pollster changes the questions they ask on such issues in a few seconds, just slightly, to induce people to consider consequences, the balance of surveyed opinion changes dramatically.

As long as the Republicans can confine the political discourse a large portion of the public hears to bumperstickers, 30 second ads, and soundbites in faux debates among millionaire pundits, they win. No matter the nature of the political trauma, the narratives heard and applied to create political identity will be the narratives supplied by the Republican Media monopoly.

Even if the Democrats develop some kind of populism, some way of turning anxiety, resentment and cynicism into something politically useful to moderates and progressives, and focusing it on Bush and his Republican enablers, how will they communicate with the low-information voter? On Meet the Press, which few watch, and where the host has been engaged for years in a campaign of misinformation against Social Security? In the pages of the Washington Post, which kept Whitewater going for seven years, but spent fully half their Abramoff scandal coverage on the question of whether Abramoff – a lifelong Republican, who gave only to Republicans – had been an equal opportunity corrupter of politicians of both Parties? The New York Times, which chose to suppress evidence that Bush cheated in his first debate with Kerry and had authorized a massive violation of law in the conduct of intelligence surveillance, before the 2004 elections?

I am not even considering the chances of fair treatment on ABC, which is conveniently broadcasting a six-hour portrayal of the Road to 9/11, which is filled with misinformation favorable to the Republican Party. Disney, the parent company, has benefitted materially from Pataki/Giuliani help in renovating Time Square and Jeb Bush favoritism in Orlando; they hire Republican political operatives, and now they broadcast a piece of propaganda that would make Goebbels proud.

Realignment is a certainty, but the likely outcome, quite frankly, is establishment of an authoritarian, corporatist regime.

Even if the Democrats manage, thru no fault of their own, to take power in 2008, things are not likely to develop in their favor, as long as the Republicans control the Media so completely. Bush has dug two huge political holes, and has pushed the country into those holes. Digging the country out of those two holes is fraught with political peril, a peril, which is only intensified by the fact that the Republicans have near total control of the Media; the journalists, who will narrate the political events of the coming crisis, as the unconsidered consequences of Bush policy – economic policy and foreign policy – come home are the incompetent and/or unscrupulous tools of a Republican Party, bent on establishing itself permanently in authoritarian rule.

The deficit makes it absolutely certain that the Democrats, coming into power in 2009, will have to raise taxes substantially. Some of those tax increases have been conveniently designed by Republicans, who put expirations on their own tax cuts. Paying down the increased debt will trigger a collapse of an unsustainable pattern of trade and credit, which has allowed the U.S. to live beyond its means, even while the country’s infrastructure and manufacturing base has been eroded: the certain consequence of the collapse of that pattern of imbalance will be a substantial reduction in the American standard of living, on the order of 5% to 10%. With Clinton-like luck and skill, it might be a “soft landing”, but more likely, with the connivance of Republicans, some kind hard crash is likely. Just as one scenario, consider the consequences for Social Security, if the country embarks on an inflationary policy, to reduce the real value of the national debt placed in the Social Security Trust Fund.

Just as problematic is Iraq. Bush has created a near-nightmare situation in the Middle East, in which the “best” outcome is Iranian dominance of the world’s oil supply, and the most likely outcome is horrendous chaos and civil war throughout that region, all of it generating extreme hostility against the U.S. among almost all parties. If the Democrats withdraw from Iraq, the consequences are likely to be horrific, and the Democrats will be blamed in the Media, Republicans control. If they don’t, the consequences are still almost certain to spin out of control, and the Democrats will be blamed.

Truth be told, the Democrats’ best hope is that the political storm over the deterioration of the economy and Iraq comes early, before Bush leaves office. If the Democrats can eke out even bare control of the House of Representatives, they won’t be able to enact legislation, but they will be able to investigation Bush corruption and incompetence, force-feeding the Media an endless narrative of Republican mendacity and betrayal, incompetence and corruption.

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